With the Assembly election around the corner, various political contradictions have begun to emerge in Chhattisgarh, which is India’s most mineral-rich State but continues to be mired in abject poverty.
The electoral discourse is dominated by allegations and counter-allegations of secret deals between Maoists and local leaders of the ruling Congress and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); by the contentious issues that surround Gautam Adani’s mining business in the State; the rights of tribal people, who constitute 30 per cent of the population; and by the issue of religious conversions.
The Congress government’s recent approach towards minorities has raised serious concern, with political observers pointing to a departure from the party’s 2018 election promises. To some, the Congress’ shift towards the Right is baffling.
In Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel’s constituency, Patan, which is adjacent to Raipur, the capital, cows are everywhere—from roads, farms, and pastures to political campaigns. The government touts its Godhan Nyay Yojana introduced in July 2020—to promote organic farming, generate rural and urban employment, and promote cow rearing and protection—as a success story. The BJP calls it a “huge scam”, bigger even than Bihar’s fodder scam.
In a recent rally in Chhattisgarh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had previously praised the scheme in a NITI Aayog meeting, slammed the Baghel government for the corruption in the government’s procurement scheme for cow dung and urine to make organic fertilizers and pesticides.
The State government has assiduously held Ramayana and Kaushalya festivals. In 2021, it inaugurated the Ram Van Gaman Tourism Circuit with an aim to develop all sites in Chhattisgarh where Ram and Sita are believed to have stayed during their 14-year exile. It has also renovated the Mata Kaushalya temple in Raipur.
Baghel’s emphasis on developing Hindu religious sites was criticised even by his father, Nand Kumar Baghel, who told Frontline: “I’ve always criticised my son for endorsing an ideology which is worse than nuclear weapons.” Baghel Sr., however, expressed satisfaction with the work the government has done for the poor and the Adivasis even as his son faces criticism for ignoring Christians and Muslims.
The BJP, which is seeking to regain power after its 15-year rule ended in 2018, announced a list of candidates in August itself, but has not declared a Chief Ministerial candidate yet. The second phase of the BJP’s Parivartan Yatra began on September 15, covering the State’s 90 constituencies with the aim to expose the government’s corruption. Hoardings in Patan pit one Baghel against another, with Vijay Baghel, the Chief Minister’s nephew and the BJP Member of Parliament from Durg, contesting from here.
BJP’s charge sheet
The party has brought out an Arop Patra (charge sheet) of 69 allegations against the government, including instances of mass conversion of Adivasis and its failure to implement 19 of the 36 promises made by the Chief Minister. One of the allegations is that the State Congress was using Naxals to kill BJP workers. In the past one year, five of them have been killed in Maoist attacks.
But the BJP’s links with Naxals are also well documented. In 2020, Jagat Pujari, a district vice-president of the BJP, was arrested in Dantewada along with another person for supporting Naxals. In 2013, Podiyam Linga, a Maoist arrested for the murder of BJP leader Shivdayal Singh Tomar, claimed that Maoists had campaigned for the BJP in the 2008 Assembly election.
As always, the BJP’s campaign looks more centralised than the Congress campaign, and it has not been built around issues such as law and order, maladministration, corruption, and the poor civic infrastructure seen even in the capital city.
On the other hand, the Congress has been running an organised poll campaign, placing its bet on welfare schemes and freebies. “The Congress is ahead of the BJP in terms of election preparations, and since it is also in power, a lot of its campaigning is done through government programmes as well. It is consistently engaged in creating and managing public perception,” said Sunil Kumar, editor of Daily Chhattisgarh. “The Chhattisgarh BJP is controlled from Delhi. The State unit looks like an army standing on the brink of war with a broken morale. In private circles, there are stories about the party’s secret poll preparations, but nothing tangible is seen on the ground.”
Pre-poll surveys predict a clear victory for the Congress in the largely bipolar contest. But some new entrants, such as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is part of the INDIA (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) bloc; Hamar Raj, a newly founded outfit by veteran tribal leader and former Union Minister Arvind Netam; and Sarv Aadi Dal (SAD), which aims to build an alliance of minorities and Adivasis, could queer the pitch for the Congress in some constituencies.
Netam, who had been in the Congress for the past five years, resigned on August 10. His resignation letter implied that the State party leadership was unconcerned about the rights of tribal people. Netam, who heads the Sarv Adivasi Samaj, an umbrella organisation of social tribal groups, said his party would contest 50 seats.
On September 16, addressing a rally at Jagdalpur in the tribal belt of Bastar, AAP leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal promised to implement the Panchayat (Extension of the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, within a month if voted to power. The AAP will contest from all 90 constituencies. PESA rules allow tribal people to take decisions on their own about resources like jal, jungle, zameen (water, forest and land). “Even the Prime Minister can’t revoke the decision taken by a gram sabha, as per PESA. The parties that formed the governments in the State didn’t implement the law as they had their eyes set on the mineral resources,” Kejriwal said, referring to the Congress and the BJP.
In August 2022, Baghel declared the implementation of PESA, but the SAD accused the government of relegating the gram sabhas to an advisory role even though PESA gave them absolute powers. SAD’s national president, Arun Pannalal, who is also president of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum, raised concerns that the implementation of PESA might come in the way of organisations doing humanitarian work in tribal areas. He said there was a lot of work to be done in the areas of health and education. “You must first understand the interest of the tribal population. Do you want to bar our entry and humanitarian work in tribal areas,” Pannalal asked.
Stating that political parties often criticised corporate entities during election season but hobnobbed with them later, Pannalal asked why Gautam Adani’s company was allotted land despite the gram sabhas denying permission for mining. “No one talks about the dilution of PESA. Adivasis are not against mining; what we want is compensation and rehabilitation before we are displaced. But successive governments have never paid heed to our demand.”
- Marking a change in stance in the 2023 elections, the ruling Congress veers to the Right even as the BJP puts forth 69 allegations against the government.
- The BJP’s accusations include mass conversions, alleged Naxal involvement, and unimplemented promises by the Baghel government.
- The contest is largely between the two main parties, the BJP and the Congress, but the entry of new players add layers of complexity to the elections.
In May 2022, during an interaction with students at the University of Cambridge, Rahul Gandhi justified tribal protests against Adani’s coal mines in the Hasdeo forests. Baghel, too, has been critical of mining projects awarded to Adani in the State when he was in the opposition. But after coming to power, social groups allege, his government signed contracts and issued permission letters to the Adani Group for mining projects in the State.
In June 2022, the district administration of Sarguja put on hold three mining projects in Sarguja and Surajpur after senior Congress leader and Deputy Chief Minister T.S. Singh Deo came out in support of anti-mining agitators in Hariharpur, claiming he was ready to face the first bullet to “Save Hasdeo Arand” (“Tribal resistance” Frontline, June 26, 2022). O.P. Chaudhary, BJP general secretary and former Raipur District Collector, criticised Gandhi, saying he ensured that the Hasdeo mines were given to the Adani Group after mediating between Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and Baghel.
Mining and delivery of coal by Adani Enterprise Limited in Chhattisgarh is in a joint venture with the Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited. Yet, when it comes to the election campaign, Adani is still the target of the Congress. “Agar kamal ka button dabaoge toh VVPAT se Adani niklega (If you press the lotus button on the VVPAT, Adani will emerge),” said Baghel.
The Congress accuses the Central government for using its investigative agencies to “intimidate and rattle” opposition leaders because it anticipates its own rout. The pre-poll surveys predict this, it says. Describing the ongoing raids on Congress leaders and government functionaries, Baghel said, “All this is politically motivated as the State government stands between Adani and the State’s mines.”
The election has also raised concerns of Adivasis caught between Naxals and the police. On September 5, two alleged Maoists, who carried a reward of Rs.1 lakh each, were killed in “retaliatory” firing between Tadmetla and Duled villages in south Bastar. However, villagers claimed that the incident was a fake encounter and have been protesting against it.
According to human rights lawyer Bela Bhatia, the main question in the context of Bastar is whether Adivasi lives matter. “This is an old question. It was raised in 2008, 2013 and 2018 as well, but even then many Adivasis were killed and thousands displaced. In 2018, the Congress promised that it would initiate a political dialogue with Maoists if voted to power. The promise has remained an empty one,” she said.
On the reports of extrajudicial killings, she said, “What is the point in bemoaning the loss of lives of Maoists in fake encounters by the police, of police informers by Maoists, or of many others as collateral damage? For that is the nature of “war”. One can only conclude that the powers do not want the “war” to end.”
On its part, the State government flaunts its industrial policy for the mining industry, which has provided exemptions in stamp duty and electricity tariffs besides other subsidies and incentives. But a sizeable section of the people who provide cheap labour to the industry, such as those living near the Gitti mines along Durg district’s Patan road, barely 50 km from Patan, remain untouched by the welfare measures. Yet, the Baghel government has bagged several national awards and recognition for its developmental and welfare works for poor labourers, marginalised forest dwellers, and farmers. Many labourers here do not even get the minimum wages. For generations, their families have been living in thatched huts on government land. “Our forefathers also worked in these mines. They too were homeless and landless,” said a woman labourer. People like her are ignorant of the government’s Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Bhumihin Majdur Nyay Yojana, which seeks to provide Rs.6,000 a year to each of 12 lakh landless labourers, or the recently launched Mukhyamantri Gramin Awas Nyay Yojana (housing scheme) for 1.30 lakh beneficiaries. Of the proposed beneficiaries, one lakh are those who have reportedly been placed on the permanent wait list under the Centrally sponsored Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY-Rural).
Incidentally, despite being a tribal State, the politics of Chhattisgarh has increasingly become OBC-centric in recent years. Baghel belongs to the OBC or Other Backward Classes community. In August 2022, BJP national president J.P. Nadda appointed Arun Sao, an OBC leader, as president of the party’s Chhattisgarh unit, replacing Vishnu Deo Sai, a tribal leader.
The reservation amendment Bills brought in by the Baghel government in December 2022 [the Chhattisgarh Public Service (Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes Reservation) Amendment Bill and the Chhattisgarh Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Amendment Bill] sought to provide 27 per cent reservation for OBCs, 32 per cent for the Scheduled Tribes, 13 per cent for the Scheduled Castes, and 4 per cent for the Economically Weaker Sections in employment and educational institutions.
At the Awas Nyay Sammelan in Bilaspur district’s Parsada village on September 25, Gandhi accused the Central government of ignoring the backward communities and promised to conduct a caste census if elected to power. “If Modi ji does not conduct a caste census, our first step after being elected to power will be to do so to ensure OBC participation,” he said.
One can only wish that Rahul Gandhi will be just as emphatic in getting Baghel to tone down the Hindutva rhetoric if his party does win here.